Like many fibre crafts, spinning has been practised for thousands of years, and the actual methods have changed little in that time. Unlike other fibre crafts though, spinning is how it all begins, how the fibre with which we knit, crochet and weave is made.
History of spinning
Spinning takes the raw fibre and twists the fibre strands together to make yarn. Wool spinning has been practised in Ireland since sheep were first introduced by Neolithic farmers over 6,000 years ago. There are some examples of early spindles (more specifically, stone or clay whorls) that have been found in many an archaelogical dig across the country.
Nowadays drop spindles are still a common tool for spinning wool. They are extremely portable and can in fact be made from a number of different bits and pieces. Avid spinner Liz O’Connor, who regularly teaches hand spinning, has made a drop spindle she made from some Kinex pieces and a plastic toy wheel. “It’s so portable, it can go anywhere. I also have a spindle that’s been made using a CD as the whorl.”
Along with her many spindles, Liz has quite the collection of spinning wheels, including a Great Wheel, which can also be called a Walking Wheel. This large spinning wheel was one of the earlier spinnng wheels and was used by drawing the fibre with the left hand and slowly spinning the wheel with the right. There was no treadle and users stood beside the large wheel, hence, the Walking Wheel.
Liz is a passionate spinner and a member of the Laine Medieval Crafters who demonstrate tradtional Viking and Medieval crafting at various events around the country. She is also member of the Irish Guild of Spinners, Weaver and Dyers.
The spinning guild
Founded in 1975 by Lillias Mitchell, the Irish Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, has members nationwide that are spinners. There are also a number of affiliated spinning groups or Guild chapters in areas including Enniscorthy, Ennis and Donegal. While there are approximately 62 guild members, there is also a more extensive spinning population of about 200-300 persons in the Republic of Ireland.
The guild is quite active with regular meetings organised by each group or chapter. The organisation holds guest workshops (such as the Amanda Hannaford spinning workshops in February 2018) and meets around the country and people are encouraged to meet members of the guild and chat to them about equipment rental schemes, upcoming workshops or to simply talk to experienced members about any spinning or weaving questions they may have.
The guild uses its social channels on Twitter, Facebook and Ravelry to promote its members and any of their news. These channels are also a good place to check if you’re looking to buy a pre-loved heirloom loom and spinning wheel.
What about the wool?
There are a few steps to go through with the wool before it’s ready to be spun: a sheep’s fleece is made up of different textures and qualities of wool and these must be sorted before spinning. Then the fleece is washed and dried. At this stage, briars and other debris are removed and a greasing agent is added to lubricate the fibres. Spinners will then typically comb or card the wool to get rid of any tangles and this action also encourages the fibres to lie side by side.
Wool wise – a medium coarseness is ideal for spinning as the fibres are naturally clingy making spinning that little bit easier. In Ireland, handspinners will use wool from a variety of breeds including Jacob, Shetland, Clun Forest, Zwartbles, Galway and even Blackface (which is the most common sheep breed in Ireland).
Handspinning is practised by many people around the country, however it is mainly practised as a hobby rather than a way to earn a living. One of the last commercial handspinners in Ireland, Diarmuid Commins of STwist Wool, hung up his spinning bobbins recently.
The slow craft of handspinning
Diarmuid told us that your average spinning wheel simply isn’t built for production spinning; it doesn’t spin fast enough. In order to spin commercially Diarmuid had to make his own wheel – a turbo charged version with a large bobbin that allowed him to spin faster than on a typical wheel.
“Handspinning is extremely laborious – I could spin for a whole day and end up with only 200g-300g of yarn. This makes it very difficult to work on a commercial scale,” explains Diarmuid. “Handspinning in general is a slow craft. There was a saying years ago that it took 16 spinners to keep one weaver going.”
And while Diarmuid no longer spins commercially, he continues to enjoy spinning, and can often be seen at exhibitions and festivals in Ireland and Europe with his trusty spinning wheel. He joins many devoted spinners dotted around the country who are passionate about this craft.
Master of the spinning wheel
The spinning, and indeed fibre, community in Ireland is a tightly knit one. And if there’s one name known to everyone, that would be Johnny Shiels, a third-generation spinning wheel maker. Johnny predominantly makes Dutch-style wheels, which were introduced to Ireland in the 18th century and used for spinning flax. A spinning wheel takes approximately 50 hours to make, which is surprising, given the number of small parts: flyer, bobbin, spindle for example.
The Shiels family have been making spinning wheels in the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal since the mid-20th century. During World War II in particular there was quite a boom in demand for spinning wheels due to the shortage of store bought yarn. According to James Shiels’, Johnny’s father, during the war spinning studios in Donegal had up to 45 wheels going at once. The demand for spinning wheels completely dried out after the war and well into the 1950s, when according to James Shiels “you couldn’t give a spinning wheel away”. But the craft saw a revival in the late 1960s and has maintained since then.
The work of the Shiels family has been featured in the RTÉ award-winning traditional craft series called ‘Hands’. If you have 20 spare minutes we’d encourage you to watch this video; it’s absolutely fascinating and slightly hypnotic.
Why not pop over and read our interview with Johnny Shiels where he speaks about the craft of spinning wheel making, and his own love of spinning.
The Irish Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers
Spinning wheels made by Johny Shiels, Carndonagh, Co. Donegal